An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

Natural noumenal? Thanks, Hitch

On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” We have only to make it so.

Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.

As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.

So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.

BioRootsofHumanity: Noumena edition

A friend told me some months ago about a Youtube video with Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris discussing religion, atheism, etc. and I finally had an opportunity with enough bandwidth and capacity to watch the two hours of these four proselytizing atheists preaching to the choir for my everlasting edification. How bright and learned can any four people be? Watch it and see at:

Actually to call these four men “atheists” does them injustice. What they believe in is empiricism, a very pragmatic positivism and a humanism deeply rooted in their knowledge and love of science, philosophy, history and literature. They covered a lot of territory but one place in particular I found salient, even luminous.

Hey, let's go down this road.

Hey, let’s go down this road.

In response to Sam Harris asking the others about peak experiences, moments of inspiration or wondrous awe, that are usually discussed in religious terms, all agreed that these are important and substantial and then Mr. Hitchens said that if he had one wish or could make one difference for a better world, it would be to separate the noumenal from the super-natural. I gotta love that guy and the independent intellectual integrity with which he approached the world.

This is important, so please stay close, folks. We are going to attempt a deeply wooded, rugged terrain and I hope not to get lost, but if we do, let’s do it together. As I understand it, the ancient Greeks, i.e., Plato and Aristotle, posited two forms of knowledge, phenomena based upon sentient experience and noumena based upon something else found in the mind, say inherently, but not sentient experience. Noumena may be the “essence” of a thing, or an ideal category or concept, or the object casting the shadow in Plato’s parable of the cave, or some supernatural experience, say information from god. I would guess that Hitchen’s point is that there is no supernatural, only natural, so that noumena must be a category in nature (our biological selves, eh?).

So, let’s reject those things almost necessarily supernatural, such as any divine text about god and heaven etc., the soul (but not the spark of life in the genome and seed/egg), god, angels (but keep Lincoln’s “the better angels of ourselves”), predestination, history and fate guided or determined from without life’s flow, and prophecies, especially the vague sort so in vogue today based upon hindsight (yes, that preacher man did foresee the floods and earthquakes because we endorse gay marriage, but . . .). What noumena does that leave us that can then be approached naturally?

Somethings wonderful, actually. My favorites would be the mystic sense, inspiration beyond the ordinary, a peak experience of life (the experience is phenomenal but the peak is noumenal), luck, coincidence, ethical authority, epiphany (think Aristotle and James Joyce here, not Augustine), pre-cognition, Jung’s archetypes, meditative calm, dreams, and maybe some visions, including even ghosts, but only the natural ones. Oh, and fairies, I cannot leave out fairy noumena.

Whence does noumenal knowledge come? What knowledge rises from within, inherent in the flow and flux of genomic replication over generations, the implicit structure and function of the MEMBRAIN, the spontaneous autogenic activity stemming from the self, the intuitive derivation of new information from old, the symbolic processes of artistic composition and discursive thought?

These four men are only defined by what they disbelieve because of the inquisitorial arguments and methods the religious authorities have exercised in the past (and yes, continue through the present). Watch Richard Dawkins light up, however, as he talks about the joys to be found in the natural world and all their appreciation of clear cogent rational thought. They should really be characterized by their humanism and empirical wonder. When Hitch first made the noumena comment, no one picked up on it. He made it once more towards the end of their conversation. I hope his insight is prescient. My work here to understand the biological roots of humanity, I hope (& pray?) contributes to the effort.